“Love me ’til my heart stops. Love me ’til I’m dead.” –David Byrne
The day before I saw my doctor for a biennial DMV physical, my thirteen-year-old son announced his intent to go vegan, and a friend of mine from high school died of Covid.
There’s a lot to unpack here. First, the 800-lb. gorilla in the sentence: a tragic, too-soon death from an insidious virus.
The old friend left behind a loving wife and two children. He was a man of great faith. On the day he died, his son turned seventeen. He was not vaccinated. Please, I am just unreeling sad facts here. Naked truth is my currency these days, mostly because I am by nature nonconfrontational, but also because I am just tired of vitriol and cruelty. I mean, really, really tired.
I scrolled the comments in the social media feed announcing his death, which told me things I already knew about my old friend. Most important, he was well-loved and fondly remembered: “One of the kindest and most wonderful souls,” read one. “Best prom date ever,” read another. “We lost one of the good guys,” read a third. The words “tragic” and “devastating” and “condolences” appeared a lot. And where there were no words, there were tiny symbols of collective sympathy and grief: broken hearts, tear emojis, praying hands–our new standards of expression. I suppose this space is mine.
As I write this, my son stands at the cupboard with his phone, using it to research which of the sugared cereals we have will fit his new lifestyle. And there, on the kitchen table before me, rests four pages of evidence that I am reasonably healthy and can continue to operate vehicles in the state of California, as long as I wear my eyeglasses. With them removed, I was only able to read the second line from the top. Everything below that on the eye chart looked like a pyramid of Z’s, and perhaps this should be ominous to me, you know, as I inch ever closer to the Big Sleep.
The morning after our old friend from high school died, I got a phone call from another old friend, a guy I hadn’t spoken to in a while. In fact, in the past quarter-century, I can count the number of times I have spoken to this guy on three fingers. Sad deal, really. In high school, he was among my closest friends.
“How did it happen?” he asked. His question was not about the dying. Since 4:30 that morning, he’d been transfixed to a feed that was over a hundred comments long and growing, so he was well aware of how it all shook out.
What he wanted to know instead was how thirty-five years had passed so duplicitously. Here one minute, gone the next. It’s a pretty common crisis among people of a certain age, especially for those of us who’ve lost both parents and realize, with a kind of grim certainty, that we now sit balanced on the tippy-top of the family tree. It’s precarious and metronomic up here. I’m sure you’ve seen what the wind can do to the tops of trees.
This guy I hadn’t spoken to in a while wanted to know how he had become “an old, fat man,” with a failed marriage, four kids, and two out-of-state college tuitions. “They’re killing me,” he said (the tuitions, not the kids). So, not just “How did it happen?” but “How did I get here?” Paradoxically, here is too often the place of greatest uncertainty.
I told him I was right there with him, at least on the “old, fat man” part. Blessedly, my marriage is strong and intact. I have three kids, not four. The tuitions I pay are in-state and, because I work for the university my daughters attend, marginally discounted. That’s one of the perks that keeps me from an early retirement. Like I said before, I am tired; I am plotting an exit strategy that permits me time to write and offers, even if only a sliver, a view of water: ocean, lake, tributary, stream. I don’t need much.
“I’m happy for you,” this guy said. “We really need more than five minutes to catch up on thirty-five years.”
The thing is, we can’t ask for more time. That’s not how it works. The time we had has now vanished, and it’s only the time we still have we can do anything about. An aphorism, yes, but one that goes by another name, a universal truth, which is precisely where we find ourselves as this pandemic drags on and news of good people dying becomes so commonplace. None of this should surprise us anymore.
I find myself also thinking about the noun phrase within the sentence, “A friend of mine from high school died of Covid.” At my age, and in this time, what “[a] friend of mine from high school” generally translates to is this: “A guy I knew thirty-five years ago and later followed on social media.”
So, rather than the abstract, something concrete: In junior high school, this old friend of mine was a teammate on my recreation league baseball team, Pearson Realty. Our uniforms were white. There were green jersey numbers just below our hearts, numbers that matched the green of our caps and collars and stirrup socks and elastic belts. He played first base and stood near the bag with a little hump in his shoulders, staring down the batter. When our team scored a run, he honked like a goose from the dugout: Eee-onk! Eee-onk! Eee-onk! Another guy on our team, the one with the two out-of-state college tuitions, always hollered, “The goose is loose in the Pearson dugout!” Then, we all honked like geese, every green-capped kid on the team.
Kind of silly, but that’s him. The first baseman from my rec league baseball team. The guy with a little hump in his shoulders. The guy who honked like a goose from the Pearson dugout and got the rest of us to follow suit. That’s the guy who died from Covid, not the guy I didn’t see for thirty-five years after 1986, when he and the brooding rock band he drummed for played the Talking Heads’ “Naïve Melody” at our last senior rally. Can you think of a more appropriate song for a bunch of eighteen-year-olds, weeks away from leaving home? Head in the sky? Make it up as we go along?
The truth is, I don’t think I saw this old friend one time after high school. We went to colleges in different cities, pursued different career paths, settled in different states, and we were, by degrees, lost to one another. For thirty-five years. Think of ripples on an otherwise still pond, drawing away from their source. All of those friends concentrated in one little place, until the chute flew open and we scattered like fire ants. It’s a big world, after all, with lots of places to go.
And therein is probably the even sadder truth, for me anyway. With two exceptions, I have become lost to every one of those friends from high school, just as they have become lost to me. They are now “people I knew once,” which–like fuzzy vision–is just a natural consequence of our senescence. We grow old, we grow apart, and we fuse to others–our spouses, our wannabe vegan sons, our college-age daughters–and this is how it should be in the natural world, in the world where our branches stretch skyward, far from our roots.
In the six weeks from the time of this old friend’s hospitalization to the day of his death, I was fortunate enough to be included in a group text with guys from high school who knew him best. I mean, these were his really good, close friends, guys who went on to establish themselves in nice careers: two lawyers, a doctor, a creative director, an English professor, a tech entrepreneur. Some of these guys performed in the brooding rock band together; traveled through Europe in college; stood bow-tied and slick-shoed next to one another in weddings; attended funerals of parents and grandparents. Over the years, they made actual phone calls and listened to one another’s voices. They wrote cursive inside Christmas cards.
There were seven of us in all. The six close friends and me. Like Terence Mann in Field of Dreams, I felt that my purpose there was to eavesdrop, to read their words and write them down. Unlike Terence Mann, I am inadequate to tell the whole story, but I can offer a sliver.
I have been scrolling that text conversation off and on for the last couple of days, and even as I sit here, the words and pictures keep coming. By now, the painful truth has set in and it’s mostly playful commentary and charming epithets on photographs of kids in faux Ray-Bans and platform Chuck Taylors (“Were those for the nonvertically blessed?”). There are pictures of the brooding rock band (“I can’t remember, but it seems like we had a couple of names”), with the lead singer in a flowing scarf that looked to be pilfered from his mother’s closet (“outlandish”). God, there are thigh-high OP shorts, argyle sweater vests, bucket hats, white tube socks and penny loafers, rugby shirts, and turned-up collars: so many, many turned-up collars (“Kids wearing shitty clothes nowadays have nothing on us”).
Nostalgic, with a subtle ache to it all.
Preceding all of that, there are weeks of status updates from the friend’s grieving but hopeful wife, passed along to the group and translated by the doctor: “He’s developing sepsis” or “They may never locate an exact source of the infection,” stuff like that. The doctor kept the whole thing grounded, really, not because he was a sourpuss out to dash all hope, but because recent experience had led him to some pretty difficult and visceral conclusions, which proved to be right (“He will not likely survive this current assault”).
Then there are messages of deep care for the family, of reaching out to the wife and mother and sisters (“if there is anything we can do for them”), of something other than hollow gestures to soften the un-softenable. And, finally, the plan for remembrance, for how to celebrate the life of an old, dear friend (“I’m thinking a playlist of his greatest hits: Steely Dan, Dire Straits, Genesis [Peter Gabriel], and the lot. Pizza and arcade games at Me-n-Eds”).
Then, this beauty: “I can just picture him banging his hands on the steering wheel to Y&T’s ‘Hang ’em High.'” Leave it to the English professor to offer the image of blustering, youthful elation. Even I can remember what that was like.
“We will celebrate him the way we remember him,” one of the lawyers wrote. This went over well with the rest of the group. Thumbs-up emojis layered one over the other, the way small hands might in the center of a schoolyard huddle.
In the kitchen, my son dithers over food choices. “Cap’n Crunch is vegan,” he says.
“Well,” you’re not going to eat Cap’n Crunch at every meal,” I say. “There are no nutrients in there.” I watch as the ageless Cap’n salutes me from the bright red box.
My son puckers his face the way thirteen-year-old boys do when they think their dads are overstating the obvious, which apparently I do all the time. My son’s face is in ceaseless pucker. “At least I can eat it with a clear conscience,” he says. On top of other urgencies, he has now added concern for piglets and calves and other creatures with cloven hooves. His mother and I will, as we have with so many other of our children’s ardent flings, ride this one out. We will support him all the way to his next cheeseburger, then hunker down for whatever follows.
My son returns the Cap’n to his shelf, then he looks into the cupboard and murmurs a list: beans, nut butters, seaweed. Hmmph. I would drop a brick on my toe to watch my son eat a ribbon of seaweed.
Next year, he will be in high school, just like I was once; just like the two lawyers, the doctor, the creative director, the English professor, the tech entrepreneur. To me, he seems much more self-possessed than any of us were at his age, me for sure. He is calm, confident, in control. He is a soulful kid, plays electric guitar, and acoustic, and keyboard, and piano. Sometimes, when he thinks we’re not listening, he sings.
Before any of this old-friend-dying-of-Covid-stuff started to happen, I asked him to learn “Naïve Melody.” That’s because I remembered it from the senior rally and the spring talent show and the times the guys in the brooding rock band assembled for Friday night shows in backyards or cul-de-sacs (“We killed it with ‘Girls on Film’ … not”). It has always been one of my favorite songs, a desert island song probably, an odd little love song that is, at once, both comforting and ambiguous: I guess I must be having fun.
I imagine that life in high school for my son will be more ambiguous than comforting. Probably by a wide margin. He will make friends, and those friends will one day become old friends, people he once knew, people with whom he will share the same space for a minute or two. They may go on to college in different cities, pursue different career paths, settle in different states, and by degrees, become lost to one another.
Or, they may not. Some of them, maybe, will love him ’til his heart stops. That is my hope for him.
If he is anything like me or his mom or his sisters, there will be some rough spots in high school, times when things don’t go so well, and for those times, I have my speeches all lined up. I will tell him that high school is dumb and full of little hurts inflicted by stupid, immature, half-developed people. I will tell him that he’s a good-looking kid with a lot to offer and he is too young to be in love anyway. I will tell him that over time, all of it will fade from his memory: the shallow insults, the unreasonable teachers, the boy with the apple-shaped head, the girl with the voice like a leaky balloon. I will tell him there will come a day in thirty-five years or so when he will not remember any of it. That it will all leave his brain as he makes his way in a world of real problems and real joys and real heartaches and real relationships, with people like him who are doing the best they can with the minutes and hours and days they’ve been given. And when I tell him that, when I tell him the part about how he will not remember any of it, I hope, for his sake, I am wrong.